When the next Congress is sworn in to office in January 2021, there’s a high likelihood it will have among its Republican members someone who is sympathetic to a wild, unsubstantiated conspiracy theory known as QAnon.
Although the theory is nebulous enough to invite all kinds of interpretations from its adherents, at its core QAnon claims that Donald Trump has been secretly fighting to bring down a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that has infiltrated all levels of the US government and other elite institutions.
The latest Republican office-seeker to talk up QAnon is House candidate Lauren Boebert, who upset five-term Congressman Scott Tipton of Colorado in Tuesday’s Republican primary. Boebert joins two more Republicans – US Senate nominee Jo Rae Perkins of Oregon and Georgia House candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene – who have embraced all or part of the QAnon theory.
In May Boebert appeared on an online talk show, Steel Truth, hosted by a prominent purveyor of the theory, Ann Vandersteel, saying that while the QAnon issue is “more my mom’s thing,” she said she nonetheless is “very familiar with it” and that she “hope[s] that this is real.” In the GOP primary weeks later, she would go on to defeat Tipton, a pro-Trump veteran lawmaker backed by the President who Boebert nonetheless painted as insufficiently supportive of Trump.
In a statement to CNN Wednesday, campaign manager Sherronna Bishop denied Boebert was a follower of QAnon. “She’s very glad that the IG and the AG are investigating the Deep State,” said Bishop. “She does not follow QAnon.”
But Boebert’s elevation suggests further ascendance within the GOP of a Trumpian approach to politics: more populist, less politically experienced, and more engaged in conspiracy theories that have little purchase outside the party’s base. Whether Trump himself wins reelection, there is evidence that the party he has led for the past four years will have a contingent of people who have taken Trump’s tirades against entrenched government saboteurs to an extreme conclusion.
What is QAnon?
According to QAnon lore, a government official or officials are working secretly to put down a coup from inside the government. Someone claiming the nom de guerre “Q” has been posting details of the supposed conspiracy on message boards throughout Trump’s presidency. A precursor to QAnon was “Pizzagate,” another theory which gained traction during the 2016 election on the same online channels and alleged Democrats connected to Hillary Clinton were involved in a child-sex ring. Most Americans had never heard of this until December 2016, when a man fired a semi-automatic rifle at a pizza shop in northwest Washington, DC. The man, Edgar Maddison Welch, had traveled from North Carolina with plans to “self-investigate” the non-existent pedophilia ring, which he believed was located at the pizza shop.
The QAnon theory, which emerged online in 2017, alleges an even deeper conspiracy and was inspired by Trump’s election, which (according to believers) was itself a military counter-effort to root out the conspiracy. While the President himself has not spoken about QAnon, he has given voice to its supporters. Trump has retweeted multiple Twitter accounts of QAnon supporters, many of them using the theory’s slogans and buzzwords. In 2018, the President even appeared to meet with one such supporter, a YouTube personality and self-described “conspiracy analyst” who goes by the name Lionel (his real name is Michael Lebron), in the Oval Office.
Even so, the theory remains largely unknown to most Americans, according to a recent Pew poll that found 76% of adults said they were unfamiliar with QAnon. In fact, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to be familiar with the theory, Pew found, with 28% saying they knew a little or a lot about QAnon compared to 18% of Republicans.
But the small number of Republicans who support QAnon are beginning to flex their muscles in electoral politics. Adherents have long appeared at Trump rallies with signs to indicate their support for Q, and pro-QAnon messages have been promoted online (and later deleted) by local Republican party organizations.
The 2020 election may be QAnon’s high-water mark in GOP politics. In May, Perkins won the Republican nomination for US Senate in Oregon as an unabashed QAnon theory supporter. Following her victory, Perkins produced and posted online a video in which she stated she stands with both Trump and “Q.” The campaign deleted the video soon after, although Perkins said she regretted allowing the campaign to delete the video.
While Perkins is unlikely to win her race against incumbent Democrat Jeff Merkley, Greene in Georgia would almost certainly win the general election if she emerges from the primary runoff in August. Greene won a crowded June primary for the open House seat in North Georgia, which is a solidly Republican district. Greene has been immersed in the world of QAnon conspiracy theorists, calling the mythical Q a “patriot” and the theory is “something worth listening to and paying attention to.”
House GOP leaders are backing the runner-up and Greene’s runoff opponent, John Cowan, and distancing themselves from Greene – especially after the emergence of some of her past comments calling black people “slaves to the Democratic party” and the progressive billionaire activist George Soros, who is Jewish, a “Nazi.”
Neither Perkins’ nor Greene’s campaigns responded to requests for comment.
But it’s Boebert’s victory in Colorado that indicates that, at least among some Republicans, the QAnon conspiracy theory is a new item on the menu of political issues primary voters are attuned to. In that May appearance on Steel Truth, Boebert said she was encouraged by the possibility the conspiracy is real.
“It only means that America’s getting stronger and better and people are returning to conservative values,” she said. “Everything that I have heard about this movement is only motivating and encouraging and bringing people together stronger, and if this is real, then it could be really great for our country.”